The prolific and talented Guillermo Martínez is well-known beyond the borders of his native Argentina. Indeed, Martínez is one of the most-translated of contemporary Argentine writers. His 2003 mystery novel, Crímenes imperceptibles (translated into English by Sonia Soto as The Oxford Murders, 2005) was turned into a film, and his short story, “Infierno grande” appears in Alberto Manguel’s masterful translation (“Vast Hell”) in The New Yorker magazine (April 27, 2009). So naturally it was exciting to be invited to translate two of Martínez’s short stories for Words without Borders, and while I expected to encounter the very best in contemporary Latin American prose, I didn’t anticipate such a range of stylistic and thematic versatility.
The first Martínez story I translated, “The I Ching and the Man of Papers,”for the October issue of WWB, is a poignant, almost lyrical tale of a professor and his wife who face the very real possibility of losing their young daughter to a mysterious ailment. The story explores the eternal conflict—if it is indeed a conflict—between the hard laws of probability and the enduring power of faith, as exemplified by the husband’s confidence in the unassailable logic of his classroom lectures and the wife’s devotion to the predictive powers of the Chinese book of oracles. I tackled this story first because it took place in a world whose rules, vocabulary, and register were familiar to me, and it represented more or less what I expected of the author (I’m a former academic, and Martínez holds a PhD in Mathematical Sciences).
Dance at the Marcone, however, presented the challenge of unfamiliarity. Unique among Martínez’s short stories in its depiction of local color, it takes place in a slightly seedy dance hall in Barrio Once. Having visited a Buenos Aires milonga—and a pretty down-at-the-heels one at that, I had a fairly good idea of the ambiance Martínez wanted to evoke in his description of the Marcone, and I understood how uncomfortable his character would feel in such a place. The protagonist is a very young man—barely out of adolescence—desperate, lonely, full of braggadocio, and out on the town one evening, trying to score. His first-person narrative is peppered with lunfardo (Argentine slang) and wry observations that reflect both his own naiveté and the author’s erudition. Capturing the adolescent voice in fiction is always a tricky business, and those who do so successfully (e.g., Salinger) are few indeed. Martínez knows how to achieve precisely the right tone, injecting just enough sophistication to sustain the artistry of his narrative and pique the adult reader’s interest without sacrificing the authentic vocabulary and Weltanschauung of the ingenuously hopeful pick-up artist of the story. It was my job to try to capture this balance and render it in English. The slang associated with youth and/or a specific social class can be a thorny issue for translators, as it requires the sort of neutral vocabulary that will neither make the text seem like a period piece nor be so contemporary as to insure its obsolescence in a year or two. In this regard, Mr. Martínez’s generosity in supplying me with an informal glossary of lunfardo terms was invaluable.
Yet another interesting aspect of this piece is the inclusion of popular song lyrics. Some of these already exist in English and thus presented no problem (e.g., the well-known bolero “Perfidia”), while others, to the best of my knowledge, have never been translated. I’m especially fond of working with lyrics: the process requires listening repeatedly to the songs in Spanish (and sometimes singing along, usually when no one else is home) while trying to extract the essence and attempting to recreate the song in English. The languid sentimentality of the tango, the sauciness of the cumbia (“Saca la mano, Antonio”), and the yearning of the bolero all coexist in “Dance at the Marcone,” a narrative that plunges us at once into the depths of Barrio Once and those of the human condition.
Read “Dance at the Marcone”